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District vs. at large voting

Posted: November 5, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: November 5, 2013 2:00 a.m.

The latest conservative push for several years has been against “big government.” Nobody likes to see our taxes wasted, resources plundered, and ineffective policies implemented.

But politicians like getting re-elected. Offering goodies and making local promises to special interest groups usually generates the votes and contributions needed to win.

The U.S. Congress is the body that approves funding and decides how much goes where. Lots of folks are complaining that President Obama is spending us into the ground, but the truth is that Congress is the culprit.

In a like manner, each state legislature allocates state taxes. When we overspend in California, it is the Legislature and not the governor to blame.

Counties and local municipalities disperse taxes and collections according to local priorities. Most counties and many cities, like Santa Clarita, have no elected executive official, and councils rule as a group.

In Santa Clarita, our five council members preside over how much goes where. One of the five is selected by the council to serve as mayor, and another is designated as mayor pro tem, i.e. the probable subsequent mayor.

Once funds are allocated by the council, the city manager executes how our city funds are spent within the categories as allocated by the council. This power vested to the city manager makes him the top executive in the city.

We do not vote for a mayor outright, and each council member running for election does so “at large,” with the top vote-getters citywide earning a seat.

Our city has grown to more than 203,000 and is now the third largest city in Los Angeles County. As we grow, neighborhoods are beginning to feel ignored, and the call for electing council members by district has been part of our local city discussion.

Many have also called for the mayor to be elected outright instead of being selected by the council.

The council tends to rotate the role of mayor, but a popular vote for mayor would de-fang the internal politics the council uses to select one of its own.

This also might help create a separation of the executive from the legislative, placing a single elected official over the city manager.

Of course, placing politicians directly in charge of professional executives creates new hazards; right now, political agendas and the execution of city policies do not always intersect.

I think electing a chief executive, with defined powers to “guide” but not dominate the city manager, actually might be a good idea. This allows our elected representative to peer over the shoulder of the city boss — hopefully without harming the manager’s ability to act effectively.

There is another option: to elect council representatives by district, i.e. a designee for Canyon County, Saugus, Valencia, Newhall, etc., and possibly a few other subdivisions. This ensures that local needs get addressed.

But this also potentially substitutes the needs of the city at large with fragmented issues that could pitch district against district and council member against council member, vying for funds.

In the end, voting by district will result in each council member exchanging favor for favor, just like the Congress does now with what has been dubbed “earmarks.”

In the end, my guess is that having each city district represented by an official instead of “at large” would cause an increase in spending, obscuring of the “big picture,” and a fostering of political divisions instead of political harmony.

We don’t want a chaotic system like Congress’s.

I propose for the near future leaving “at large” election for City Council in place.
In the 2012 election for City Council, 15,390 of the 90,714 registered voters cast a ballot. The most popular official garnered only about 7,500 votes.

About 9 percent of the voting population decided who sits on the council. That means your vote matters.

The upcoming city election is April 2014. Candidates for council are already scurrying about for your vote.
You might want to ask about their views regarding voting for seats by district versus “at large” and if we should vote directly for city mayor.

Perhaps more important than what promises a candidate will make is how he or she intends to reshape our political process in light of our expanding population.

Often structure, more than intention, shapes our results.

Jonathan Kraut owns a private investigations firm and serves in the Democratic Party of the SCV and on the SCV Interfaith Council. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or other organizations. “Democratic Voices” appears Tuesdays in The Signal.



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